Cursing a Vigil

Cursing a Vigil

It was a vigil. A candlelight vigil for a seventeen year old black young man who was shot and killed by a Chicago police officer.

The week after the verdict came back guilty in the officer’s trial, a friend of mine hosted the vigil at her small church in the Norwood Park neighborhood on Chicago’s northwest side. Her church is part of a coalition of churches in the area who came together to promote racial justice when a woman with a Puerto Rican flag on her shirt was harassed at a local park. They wanted to remember Laquan McDonald as more than a symbol, and stand with his family and friends in their grief at his loss.

No verdict can bring him back.

The church where the vigil was held meets in a train station in the heart of the neighborhood. It’s a lovely spot in the center of a small park filled with trees with a picturesque wrought iron fence around it. I arrived early and was startled to see bright royal blue plastic bunting tied to every post in the fence and an apparently semi-permanent sign firmly attached next to the sidewalk that said “Blue Lives Matter.” I wondered if all this was normally there (it wasn’t), or had just been put there because of our vigil (it had). As I walked up the path to the train station, every tree was wrapped in the blue plastic bunting.

It wasn’t subtle. Far from it.

Laquan McDonald had just turned seventeen when he was killed. Raised mostly by his great-grandmother until her death, he’d talked of becoming a nurse. He was back in school and had a part-time job learning to rehab properties. He liked working with his hands. He loved his little sister fiercely.

He was like my brothers, yours kids, our nephews – if they had the early childhood trauma of a mother struggling with addiction and abusive foster homes, if they grew up in a violent neighborhood with poor schools and few opportunities where people survive by self-medicating with readily available street drugs, if they had the symptoms and struggles common to those who suffer with PTSD.

His family loved him like we love our kids – by age five he was living with his great-grandmother, with a large extended family nearby. His mother worked to get her life on track and built a loving relationship with her son. His family misses him – like we would miss our kids.

In the face of obstacles I can barely imagine, Laquan was a kid trying to survive and find his way to a good life.

We met to remember Laquan, to pray for his family, and to pray for change in the system that resulted in his death.

And that was something part of the community could not stand.

When we walked outside with candles lit, the men (I saw no women) gathered along the edge of the small park began to yell. “SHUT UP, B****!” I heard that more than once above the blare of truck horns. They’d lined the block with trucks (some had more signs) and set of all their alarms. It was meant to be threatening, and it was. Particularly to the handful of black women who drove in from their neighborhoods to join us.

I kept wondering, what are these men so afraid of?

When I listen to friends who are concerned that “Blue Lives Matter,” they are worried that we are minimizing the risks police officers take in the course of doing their jobs. But our society clearly believes that the lives of police officers matter. We protect them with body armor and armored vehicles. We give them weapons to use and latitude to use them – batons, Tasers, guns. And when officers are killed in the line of duty, we honor them with funeral parades, salutes, and memorials.

(Where are the memorials for young black women and men who should still be alive?)

In the only interview he has given, the officer who killed Laquan McDonald said something that gave me chills. He said, “I might be looking at the possibility of spending the rest of my life in prison for doing my job as I was trained as a Chicago police officer.”

It’s something I’ve heard again since the verdict in interviews with other officers and representatives from the Fraternal Order of Police.

It’s part of the reason for our vigil after the verdict.

I suspect it’s a large part of the reason those men yelling expletives at us are so afraid.

Norwood Park is 80% white (down from over 90% in 2000) and home to many of Chicago’s police and firefighters. They see a colleague convicted and going to jail for doing what they consider to be his job, and it scares them.

The power to kill makes them feel safer (and we wonder why gun violence is so prevalent on Chicago’s west and south sides), and that power is being threatened by outside accountability and consequences.

And so they cursed a prayer vigil. They beat their chests and roared their roars and blared their horns and tied their blue bunting in a message that could not have said more clearly, “Our lives matter more than Laquan McDonald’s.”

Which is why we must continue to insist – Black Lives Matter, too.

Laquan’s life mattered.

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What I Saw

What I Saw

It’s been a week.

Most of us watched something this week that traumatized us in some way.

Whether we saw a brave woman, terrified as she described what happened to her when she was fifteen years old, or whether we saw an angry, belligerent man, terrified at being accused of something he has no way to conclusively disprove, or whether we saw a group of politicians trying to score points against each other, or whether we saw some of all of those things, it wasn’t easy to watch.

Personally, I’ve seen too many women who have not been believed when they screwed up the courage to tell someone what happened to them, or possibly as bad, women who have been believed and told that they should just keep quiet, that other things are more important. And I’ve seen too many men who either knew they were guilty or did not want to believe they had done such harm fight and belittle and lash out to defend themselves. And that all came very present to me this week.

Something else came present to me as well, the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas hearings that I watched twenty-seven years ago. It was a different time, a time when we hadn’t been talking about sexual harassment as clearly or as long. Dr. Hill’s allegations were confusing to a lot of us. We had trouble seeing and understanding the power dynamics at play. And for a young woman from a very conservative context who only knew what pornography was because of how I had heard it condemned, the details sounded like something from a farce more than real life.

But I remember Anita Hill’s calm relating of even the most demeaning details, and I remember Clarence Thomas’s calm declaration that it was all a race-based attack on a black man who had risen too high.

Both were unerringly composed.

They had to be.

Both had a lifetime of experience in not being believed, in being dismissed or discredited or thought dangerous if they freely displayed emotion (and often even if they didn’t). Both knew that even (especially) the truth would require great care and deliberation from them.

I though about that as I watched the hearings this week. As I saw Dr. Ford’s careful preparation, deliberate words, and attempts to keep her emotions in check.

And I thought about it as I watched Judge Kavanaugh give his anger and frustration free reign, with little regard for protocol or maintaining order.

Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill, Christine Blasey Ford – none of them expected to be believed simply as a matter of course. Their experience had taught them not to expect that.

In America, only a white male would be incensed that he is not believed as a matter of course, as Brett Kavanaugh clearly was. Only a white man can afford to be incensed about it. We may all be angry and frustrated when the truth we tell is ignored or dismissed or denied, but only a white male can so readily display that he is incensed and offended and belligerent and expect that he will continue to be taken seriously.

It’s the American way, after all. Every right American citizens have was originally granted only to white men. As others have gained formal access to those rights, they (we) still have to fight for what white men have ready access to, because the whole experiment was constructed to work exclusively for them.

Part of the work of patriotism is to change that, to work to see the promises of America fulfilled equitably for all. It’s hard work, and made all the harder by those who, like Judge Kavanaugh seems to, take advantage of every advantage they already have, in the full belief that they have earned that right.

May we all be given eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to respond to to reality, however much it is not what we would like it to be.

And for the record, I believe her.